Dream big

Meet ‘Famous In Love’ star Pepi Sonuga, the Nigerian-American powerhouse taking Hollywood by storm
By Lindsey Okubo | Film+TV | 19 April 2017
Photography Magdalena Wosinska
Fashion Mecca Cox.

Pepi Sonuga in HERO 6

‘Famous In Love’ is available to watch in full on Freeform from today – to celebrate, here’s our full interview with star Pepi Sonuga from the new HEROINE

Though based in Los Angeles, Pepi Sonuga’s Nigerian background is a constant force in her life. Her mother is of the Igbo tribe, her father, of the Yoruba, and theirs was a star-cross’d love story, spotlighting the conflicted history of their country. Now 23-years-old and a talented young actress, intertwining multiple parts of her identity is part of Pepi’s reality. Having dreamt of being on the big screen since the age of nine (playing Queen Nefertiti is the ultimate goal), she’s making her mark on the industry. The next twelve months are set to be her biggest yet, from a role as Lacey Emery in the second season of Ash vs. Evil Dead to playing Tangey Turner on Famous In Love, the television uptake of Rebecca Serle’s popular book.

Lindsey Okubo: You moved to LA at a young age from Nigeria and essentially started off with pageants and a modelling career, was it from there that you worked your way to acting?
Pepi Sonuga: I was never really a pageant girl but we got a random letter in the mail one day to do this pageant for fun. That was the first one I ever did and I ended up winning, that was the thing that really thrust me into this world. The prizes were a certificate for an acting school, headshots and things like that. Then on the the radio one day I heard something like, “Do you want to be on the Disney channel? Come down and be with us!” I saved up all my money, went in and got my first agent. But for me, the struggle was not even knowing where to start. I came to a completely new country, no friends, no family.

Lindsey: As a young person with influence looking at the state of the world, how do you emotionally deal with our reality?
Pepi: It really breaks my heart, it really does and that’s such an understatement. I grew up seeing poverty, seeing people with no legs, that’s normal in my country. I’m older now and my upbringing gives me a sense of purpose in everything that I’m doing. My dreams aren’t just to rally and to petition, I believe that we can change the world and we will. I think our generation is really the only generation looking at the world with clear eyes. We’re the first generation that knows you can go to college, work hard and you still might not get the job, you might have to work three jobs, you still might be homeless. You’re telling me that I’m supposed to be OK with wanting to grow up? Hell no, I don’t want to adult. We’re being mocked because we all want to be creatives, but that’s just because we’re the first generation that doesn’t romanticise the American dream. But I’m just taking it all in, dude, it’s such a blessing. I’m getting to do what I love, to act, and there’s a whole team of people whose job is to make sure that my dreams keep coming true. I have chills just thinking about it.

“We’re being mocked because we all want to be creatives, but that’s just because we’re the first generation that doesn’t romanticise the American dream.”

Lindsey: You just seem very genuine and that’s so refreshing, you’re living your dreams whilst knowing just how special that is today. What are some things that have given you a reality check along the way?
Pepi: People think that it’s all glitz and glam, but seeing it in front of me, it’s not nearly as glamorous as it looks. You can’t try to keep up with it. People want fame for the wrong reasons, “Oh I want to be famous so people will love me.” No, it doesn’t take any sadness or emptiness you feel away at all. This whole year really has been the universe telling me, “Whatever you feel that you’re not comfortable with, you need to immediately fix it because as soon as you’re thrust into whatever is about to happen after these shows air, it’s not going to go away.” I’m preparing myself for what’s about to happen and that means being the best me that I can be. An acting coach of mine, who sadly passed away, told me that the only way you can get what you want is through pure honesty. I told her, “I don’t want to be a bitch.” She said, “Pepi, you’re never gonna be a bitch if you’re honest from your heart.”

Lindsey: In your experience, what is the power of film?
Pepi: Film has a way of pulling people out of their realities but also showing them exactly what their reality is, shouting it at them. When I went to the movie theatre for the first time, I remember I fell in love with the music and the moment when you knew the movie was about to start. When I say ‘film’, I really mean the film experience, seeing it in the movie theatre, not on your laptop or on the plane or whatever. I really believe that I have something inside of me that I want to share with the world. I’m not sure what it is yet, but for now film is the only way that I can show my heart and share that with people, really hug people.

Lindsey: How has taking on and essentially becoming all these other people, real or fictional, had an impact on you as an individual? It seems like it takes a lot of self knowledge.
Pepi: Every single role has added so much to me. I once played a role where the girl was kind of promiscuous let’s say, I wasn’t promiscuous even before the role but I formed an opinion about my body and sex. Acting has made me form opinions because I have to ask myself who I am. “Am I like her? Am I not like her?” For example, my character right now in Famous in Love, Tangey Turner, she has made me so confident. She didn’t start off like that, she started off kind of insecure and finding her way. I think I grew up with her, as the writers were writing her stronger and stronger, by the end of the season I felt stronger. Not that you become your character, but acting makes you question who you are.

Lindsey: What does ‘home’ mean to you nowadays?
Pepi: Home is wherever I can find love at that moment. Because I can’t split up my love, I’ve always had to do that. I had to leave Nigeria, leave my friends there, I had to leave my dad. I’ve always had to leave people in all these different parts of the world. The world is one big playground and I have different homes everywhere. I can’t be in New Zealand filming Ash vs. Evil Dead and be stressing about how sad I am that I’m not in LA.

“I really believe that I have something inside of me that I want to share with the world. I’m not sure what it is yet, but for now film is the only way that I can show my heart and share that with people, really hug people.”

Lindsey: How do you integrate your race, culture and upbringing into your career?
Pepi: Sometimes it’s hard because they’re all drastically different from each other. With Nigerian culture, it’s very strict and since things aren’t thriving in the best sense there, people want the best for their children. It’s the best education, the best this and that, you act like a lady, so many rules, it’s misogynistic to the max. I remember when I first came to the United States and made my first friends, I kept saying, “It’s so free! Everything is so free!” They were saying that this country is not free and listing all the things that make America bad, but I’m like, “You guys don’t get it, you guys are so free compared to other countries.” I’ve tried to blend those two parts of me because it would be fake if I were to say that I was all Nigerian. But, I would also be fake if I didn’t say that I’m a woman who believes in marriage and that I should be married by this certain age. Because these things have been embedded in me, even if I’m in this new world with strong feminist narratives, I can’t get rid of them.

Top image fashion credits: DOLCE & GABBANA dress from RESURRECTION VINTAGE; shoes by PRADA FW16


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